El Salvador: Renewed state-sponsored terror

Thursday, February 14, 2008

In what country does protesting against water privatisation — or better put, protesting against the removal of your only source of water — lead to the police killings of a protesting child, arrests and bashings of protesters and a threatened 60 year jail sentence under the "anti-terrorism" legislation?

And in what country does being head of a body — the National Civil Police — infamous for allowing complete impunity for flourishing death squads qualify you to be the presidential candidate for the governing party?

The answer is El Salvador — where some of the most notorious death squads in the world are still in operation, murdering selected targets with the aim of instilling fear among the population as a whole.

Death squad killings

On January 9, Wilbur Funes, the mayor of Alegria, was assassinated while visiting community projects in his municipality. Municipal staff member Zulma Rivera was also shot and killed. One of El Salvador's youngest mayors, Funes was an activist in the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

A January 11 statement by the US-based Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CIPES) reported that Funes "was dedicated to creating projects for the benefit of the poorest communities in his area while defending the interest of public services still owned by the municipality".

Funes carried out this task, according to the statement, despite his municipality being the victim of a privatisation scheme carried out by the previous right-wing municipal administration just before leaving office — part of a national campaign by the governing ARENA party aimed at stripping FMLN-run municipal governments of resources to implement the FMLN's pro-poor social policies.

Only weeks earlier, an announcer at the progressive community radio station People's Radio Chain was murdered after receiving death threats. Death threats continue to be made against the station's staff.

El Salvador became a regular feature in world news headlines in the 1980s, due to one of the world's bloodiest and dirtiest civil wars — with the US-backed dictatorship organising death squads to crush a popular FMLN-led insurgency.

The role of the US government in the organisation, training and funding of the death squads was described by US intellectual Noam Chomsky in his book What Uncle Sam Really Wants as "one of the most sordid episodes in US history — and it's got a lot of competition".

Despite over US$1 million per day worth of assistance from the US military, the regime was unable to crush the FMLN, which had fought the war machine to a standstill by 1989. This led to a negotiated peace agreement to end the conflict, bringing with it unprecedented hopes for democracy among the battle-weary masses.

Sixteen years since the peace agreement, the right-wing ARENA party — with its generals who, thanks to the immunity from prosecution for war crimes contained in the agreement, have made the transition to civilian political life — still control state power.

Struggle for social justice

Hopes for, and concrete experiments in promoting, popular power remains with the FMLN, which has successfully made the transition from a guerrilla army to a mass-based political party, which, along with ARENA, is one of El Salvador's two major parties. The FMLN narrowly won the highest number of votes of any party in the 2006 legislative elections, although not enough for an outright majority in parliament.

Despite the formal ending of the armed conflict, the struggle for social justice remains difficult and violence still plays a significant role in politics — for the poor the stakes are still about survival.

A small victory was secured in this struggle on February 8 when El Salvador's attorney-general requested that charges of "acts of terrorism" be dropped against 13 peaceful protesters arrested at a demonstration against water privatisation in Suchitoto last July, according to a February 13 CIPES statement. However, the government is still seeking to have the activists charged with causing public disorder and aggravated damages, which carries jail sentences of up to four years. Family members of the "Suchitoto 13" have undertaken a three-day march from Suchitoto to San Salvador to draw attention to the case.

The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2009, and early polling suggests the FMLN have a serious shot at winning. However, the US government and the El Salvadorean elite can be expected to pull out all stops to prevent El Salvador from the joining the growing ranks of leftist, anti-imperialist governments in Latin America, as they succeeded in doing in 2004.

ARENA's founder, Roberto D'Aubuisson, ran the deaths squads during the civil war, and is believed to be the intellectual author of the infamous assassination of Archbishop Romero in 1980. Events over recent years, with Funes assassination being only the most recent example, point to ARENA reverting to form and reviving death squads in a bid to use brutal repression to hold onto power.